August 2, 2016 by Katia
I sit on the parent bench with my eyes fixated on him, or rather the idea of him. I only see very little of the actual child as most of his heart shaped face is covered by green-rimmed gigantic goggles with a nose piece. Different parts of him emerge from the water only to become an underwater color stain with dancing edges seconds later. The hair that he carries as a defining trait is darker, longer and stripped of its shape.
He is seven now and most of the time I struggle as I try to resurrect the older versions of him. I want to remember but usually find myself unable to access that presumed audio-visual archive, where every previous layer of him exists, just waiting to be admired. The current one is so vibrant, loud and fascinating that it leaves very little room for the past. But something is different about today. Without any warning a memory finds me instead of the other way around. It swims toward me but rather than long, lanky legs and feet that are always slightly bigger than I expect I see a chubby thigh and curled up toes emerging from the water. I grasp on to this micro-memory, not ready to let go yet and start collecting more details: the same hazel eyes revealing the buds of emotions I’ve grown to recognize like the back of my hand. I see the same heart shaped face but it’s not yet carved into its present more succinct form and I skip a beat at the sight of his once golden hair with curls that forget their original shape as they hit the ear-line and softly land on his shoulders in straighter strands. I feel the weight of that toddler in my arms. Sense his disquiet in the water. My mind travels farther beyond the pool and I remember how surprised we were at the discovery that our fearless adventurer didn’t like swimming. Putting that fact under the parental microscope I came to the conclusion that it was about the lack of ability to control his environment rather than the act of swimming. I was as convinced of it as only a new mother can be. Now I tell myself it was probably just the water in his ears.
I de-blur my lens and watch him in the water again. I can see the tension in his shoulders and I know that they still hold some of that historical baggage but he is now eager to conquer the water, sometimes attempting an exercise before his instructor finished demonstrating it. My attention is pulled toward the smile, my smile. It’s been there the whole time and I can’t help it. I am the parent, a role that still continues to surprise and humble me. The water offers another memory of a warmer country and an outdoor pool. I am the child and my grandma, my babooshka, is on parent duty. I remember the sense of vastness, the broken reflection of the sun and not liking to hold my head underwater to blow bubbles. I later practiced at home with a beige plastic tub. I remember how much I enjoyed – despite the head in the water – the sense of freedom offered by “the arrow”, an exercise where you launched yourself into the pool, pushing away from its edge with your feet. The short dark hair and creamy bathing suit of a female instructor are memory snapshots. What I do recall vividly is the sense of curiosity evoked by the unexplained goose bumps along the bikini lines of her swimsuit. Everything else is fading at the edges. I am sure my babooshka carried a book in her purse and that she would have been reading. Or was she watching me through thick glasses with her impaired-vision eagle eyes to make sure I wasn’t drowning? I find that possibility just as likely. Perhaps she was doing a little bit of both. This unsolicited memory doesn’t go down my throat as smoothly as the first one, and I gently part with it as I’ve been doing with almost every other memory of my babooshka since December 2014.
I don’t hear the actual instructions, just broken syllables but I marvel at my son as he flips from his back to his belly to his side and completes an exercise at the count of five. His only safety net are his goggles, the goggles that he had double checked and confirmed with me that I didn’t forget, because the goggles are his cape.
I think of how I’ve never quite outgrown that initial discomfort of immersing my head in the water and how that became the defining trait of swimming to me. A succession of memories marches in: I’m a tween at a friend’s neighborhood pool and I’m “re-learning” to swim, wearing every possible floating device and feeling mortified as I watch younger kids race by. I’m a university student required to take a semester of sports and I elect swimming. There is no longer suppressed fear or intense excitement associated with this decision. Those are replaced with the logistics of getting my body swimsuit ready and with words that put a distance between emotions and self: can we spare the test and just declare ourselves as members of group D or F or whatever is considered sub-par? Those memories float away as unnoticeably as they appeared leaving no emotional skid marks. And I see my son once again conquering, overcoming, celebrating.
What is it about this water? Why does it take me to so many places? Maybe it’s its power of abstraction. “I wish I could stay there for one more hour.” he tells me excitedly as we walk up the stairs leading to the dressing room, him wrapped in a towel and dripping water, me dry and trying not to get my flip-flopped feet wet. “You see?” I tell him “there is a right time for everything. You don’t remember this, but you took some swimming classes as a baby and then once again as a toddler and you didn’t like the water at all. I’m so happy we waited until you were ready.”
“I do remember!” he passionately objects and begins speaking rapidly as if he needs to chase down that memory before it disappears, “there was an instructor and he was telling me to sing a song when I sat on the swim board to make me forget that I was scared, but it didn’t work and I was singing the song and crying”. I embrace this new memory and every speck of emotion, information and insight it offers and somehow some of it becomes my own.
That didn’t just happen once. Watching my son swim every week brings up some intense emotions, although not all of it is nostalgia based. Do you ever feel the same way watching your child perform a certain activity?